Commentary on Acts 2:1-47

May 14th, 2013

From the Abingdon New Testament Commentary on Acts, available with a Premium Subscription to the Ministry Matters Library

The Holy Spirit and Its Aftermath (2:1-47)

With the ascension of Jesus, the gathering of believers in Jerusalem, and the identification of an apostle to replace Judas, the stage is now set for the outpouring of the Spirit, an event that has been promised again and again but one that still comes with startling force. As fascinating as the scene depicting the Spirit's arrival is (2:1-13), Luke does not dwell on the mechanics of the manifestation; instead, Pentecost serves largely to introduce the Spirit's work. On this occasion the Spirit empowers Peter to speak and enables amazing growth in the community's size and conduct. Peter's speech (2:14-40) occupies a pivotal place in Luke-Acts, because it interprets what has already happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus and because it offers essential clues for understanding what is about to unfold in Jerusalem and beyond. The speech consists of four distinct movements, the first three of which begin with direct address by Peter to the audience. The final movement also begins with direct address, this time from the audience to Peter and his colleagues:

v. 14 “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem”

v. 22 “You that are Israelites”

v. 29 “Fellow Israelites” [lit. “Brothers”]

v. 37 “Brothers”

The aftermath of Peter's speech provides a summary report about the life of this emerging new community (vv. 41-47).

The Coming of the Spirit (2:1-13)

Pentecost, the harvest festival identified in the Hebrew Bible as the Feast of Weeks (Ex 23:16; 34:22; Lev 23:15-21; Num 28:26-31; Deut 16:9-10), provides the setting for the arrival of the Spirit. At least since the time of Augustine, interpreters have attempted to find significance in an association of Pentecost with the giving of the Torah, and some Jewish texts roughly contemporary with Luke do appear to associate Pentecost and covenant renewal (Jub. 1:1; 6:17-19; 14:20; and cf. 1QS 1:8-2:25; Fitzmyer 1998, 233-37). Most Jewish texts connecting Pentecost with Torah are substantially later than Acts, however, and Calvin may have been closer to the mark when he observed that by specifying Pentecost Luke is explaining why Jerusalem would have been full of people, both residents and pilgrims (1965, 49; and cf. Acts 20:16). Alongside this temporal setting, it is equally important to notice Luke's assertion that “they were all together in one place” (v. 1), an assertion that cries out for attention. Luke does not say merely that they were together, or all were present, but instead “all together” and “in one place.” Neither the number of persons present nor the place is specified. Because the immediately preceding verse refers to the apostles, Luke might have only the Twelve in mind. Yet the selection of Matthias occurs in the presence of the larger community (see 1:15), and the fact that the quotation from Joel includes daughters and female slaves makes it more likely that the outpouring of the Spirit encompasses the larger group (a view that was held at least as early as Chrysostom, Homilies on Acts 4 [NPNF 11:25-26]).

The extravagant production Luke describes in vv. 2-3 has all the hallmarks of the divine presence. Both wind and fire are regularly associated with theophanies (e.g., Ex 3:2; 13:21-22; 19:18; 1 Kgs 19:11-12; Isa 66:15; 4 Ezra 13:1-3, 8-11). Beyond understanding that these are traditional signs of the divine, it is futile to attempt to reconstruct the scene. What exactly “divided tongues” are or what it means that they rested on each person is quite unclear. What is clear is that the Holy Spirit pervades the gathered community so that all are in its grasp.

No private event, the arrival of the Spirit simultaneously involves a public venue and public accountability. In some unexplained way, the walls of the house dissolve and the community finds itself outdoors and in the presence of Jews “from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” The notion of Jews living in “every nation” might seem odd except that for centuries Jews had emigrated for a variety of reasons. By the first century, far more Jews lived outside Palestine than within it. Many Jews made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover and stayed through Pentecost; other diaspora Jews lived in Jerusalem for reasons of commerce or settled there late in life (note also 6:9).

The list of peoples in vv. 9-11 has counterparts elsewhere (Gen 10:2-31; Syb. Or. 3:156-95, 205-209; Philo, Embassy 281-83; Flaccus 45-46), as various writers testify to the presence of Jews and the adoption of Jewish practices in a wide range of places in the Roman world (see also Josephus, Ag. Ap. 2.282; J.W. 2.398). Luke's list does not so closely resemble any other such list as to suggest literary dependence, however, and this list serves less to emphasize the geographical spread of Judaism than to signal the imminent spread of the gospel. What appears to control the selection and ordering of the list is a grouping of locations around the four compass points, viewed through the assumption that Jerusalem is the center of the earth (cf. Ezek 5:5; Jub. 8:19; 1 En. 26:1). The first group begins east of Jerusalem (Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians) and then moves back to Judea; the second group moves north from Jerusalem (Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia) and then back in the direction of Jerusalem; the third group moves west from Jerusalem to north Africa, Rome, and then again back to Jersualem by means of Crete; and the fourth compass point is represented by the collective “Arabs” (Bauckham 1995, 417-27). This observation helps to explain one of the most puzzling features of the list, the inclusion of Judea: Why refer to Judeans as if they were resident aliens?

Luke's understanding of Spirit-filled speech differs from that of Paul, the only other New Testament writer to refer to this phenomenon. First Corinthians uses the same word (glossa), but the context makes it clear that Paul has in mind ecstatic speech that requires the presence of an interpreter (1 Cor 12:10, 28; 13:1, 8; 14:1-33, 37-40). For Luke, however, the speech is that of other languages. Neither does Paul nor anyone else speak of some originating gift of the Holy Spirit. Attempts to reconcile the two accounts are more passionate than persuasive; what Paul and Luke share is an awareness of the Spirit's power and its unpredictability.

This miraculous event prompts a divided response, as gospel proclamation will do later in Acts (e.g., 4:1-4; 17:32; 28:24). Some observers are “amazed and perplexed” at what it might mean, while others offer the more pedestrian interpretation that the believers are drunk. The latter view may not be merely cynical, since Plutarch reports that wine augments prophetic speech (Oracles at Delphi 406B; Obsolescence of Oracles 437E; cf. Mic 2:11).


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